TapRoot Fibre Lab: Farming Flax for a Sustainable Fashion Future

30 March 2022

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The global garment industry is responsible for an estimated eight per cent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, and nearly twenty per cent of all wastewater. Landfills in Ghana and Chile overflow with mountains of discarded clothing and footwear. Fast fashion is notorious for labour practices that are unethical at best and fatal at worst. In short, the system is broken.

But a farm in Port Williams, Nova Scotia, is determined to put Canada at the forefront of a green fashion economy—one plot of flax at a time.

The TapRoot Fibre Origin Story

TapRoot Farms was already one of the largest organic farms in Atlantic Canada when owners Patricia Bishop and Josh Oulton decided to add plant- and animal-based fibre to their operations, and TapRoot Fibre was born. I spoke with Patricia about this turn toward fibre production. The following interview segments, interspersed with thematic deeper dives, have been edited for length and clarity.

Michelle Woodvine: “What made you decide to add fibre to your farm offerings? Why flax?”

Patricia Bishop: “This adventure started because we were trying to sort out what to do with all the nettles on our farm. I had a lightbulb moment about growing clothes from the farm as well as food—nettles and linen for spring and summer clothes, wool and wool-linen blends for fall and winter clothes. We decided to focus on a bast fibre that is already in production in the world so we could access the resources available—and we fell in love with flax.”

Patricia and Josh leveraged a community with varied expertise to realise their dream, all the while building a team and nurturing a community. Today, ten years after that first lightbulb moment, flax is thriving at TapRoot Farms.

image description: a woman stands in front of industrial fibre processing machines; she is holding a bundle of flax fibre

Here in the TapRoot Fibre Shed, Patricia Bishop stands in front of the hackling machine with an armful of freshly processed long line flax.

The TapRoot Philosophy

MW: “Sustainability is a vital component of the TapRoot Farms vision at every level of your farming practice. Tell me about this philosophy and why it is so important to you?”

PB: “From a young age I felt like we needed to take better care of the Earth. It feels fragile to me. I studied environmental biology at school, and when I decided to farm, I wanted to do it organically. That, for me, is the only way forward. When we lose our connection to food and fibre we lose skills, diversity, capacity, and resilience. A vibrant community, in my view, is one where everyone is able to contribute meaningfully towards the creation of the items that that community needs to be well.”

All about Flax

It might come as a surprise to learn that flax is one of the foundation crops of civilization. But clues to its historical importance are right there in its Latin name, Linum usitatissimum.

Many common flax-based items have names (in both English and French) that hint at their origins: linen, linoleum, and linseed oil… all made from flax. Linen has been used since ancient times to make everything from clothing and household textiles, to sail cloth, painters’ canvas, and bookbinders’ thread. It’s no wonder then, that “usitatissimum” translates to “most useful.”

Beginning in the 1950s, the development of petroleum-based floor coverings and synthetic fabrics reduced the demand for flax-based linoleum and linen. But in recent years, growing awareness of the environmental impacts of petroleum-based products, especially synthetic fibres, has created new opportunities for flax—and the people who produce it.

At TapRoot, every part of the plant is used: seed (for eating or growing), line and tow (long and short fibres for spinning) and shives (straw, used for mulch and animal bedding).

image description: a small flock of sheep, some white, some brown, some black and some beige

Definitely not flax! In addition to flax, TapRoot Farms processes and sells yarn from their own flock of over thirty sheep, as well as processing fleece brought in by other farmers.

image description: skeins of yarn, sitting on a pile of uspun fibre; the skeins have a label, with the words "TapRoot Fibre" front and centre

TapRoot Fibre’s One Sheep One Fleece One Yarn line, sold as an entire bundle of yarn from one sheep each season. This line is aimed at raising awareness about the unique nature of each sheep and the yarn that comes from it.

MW: “What is flax yarn like? What kind of fabric does it become?”

PB: “Flax yarn is amazing! I am not a yarn person, so I don’t come to flax with any knowledge of yarn, and I think this helps, because people who know a lot about yarn seem more hesitant of exploring flax. But once you try it, you love it.

“The yarn we make now is either a single or a two-ply that is very dense. As with all linen it softens with time, but it is coarser than what people are used to. It has tremendous texture. I am making a sweater with our linen. Sara [Sara Gennaro, Lead Spinner and Mill Manager] has knit a beautiful shawl. Wash cloths and hand towels are great with our linen too.

“Flax fabric is beautiful, appealing to the eye and touch, and is ideal to have against your skin. It has anti-fungal and anti-bacterial properties, and wicks away moisture. It is strong and stands the test of time.”

image description: a close up of a white sheep, facing towards the camera
Flax yarn creates beautiful stitch definition in knitted fabrics.
image description: a hand-woven fabric and a hand-knit fabric, hanging side by side
Tea towels woven from flax yarn are absorbent and get softer and softer with use.

Growing Flax

Flax has a growing season of 90-125 days, grows anywhere from to 40-90 centimetres tall, depending on the growing conditions, and is well known for its striking blue flowers.

MW: “Does flax grow well in Nova Scotia?”

PB: “Flax loves Nova Scotia growing conditions and most importantly, the sunny dry days and moist damp nights in Nova Scotia in August are ideal for retting.”

image description: a close up of blue flax flowers

Retting? Hackling? Scutching? Your Guide to Processing Flax

Step 1: Rippling

Flax grows from seed to mature plant in 90-125 days. Once plants are mature, they’re pulled up and the seeds are removed, a process called rippling.

Step 2: Dew Retting

Flax is spread out on a grassy field and soil microorganisms digest the pectins that hold the stem together, making it easier to separate the fibres. Can take up to three weeks.

Step 3: Braking/Breaking

Bundles of fibres are crushed.

Step 4: Scutching

Fibres are whacked with a wooden blade to remove remaining woody material.

Step 5: Hackling

Fibres are combed through sharp tines.

How much flax?

On a test plot, 20 sq. ft. of flax produced 350 g of long line and 320 g of tow fibre.

image description: an infographic displaying the five stages of flax processing; the text in the infographic is given in the text box at the left

Click to enlarge image.

No Such Thing as Can’t

MW: “When you started, it was hard to find small-scale equipment for flax processing. A lack of equipment might have stopped other farmers, but you not only designed and manufactured your own equipment but also made the option available to other small farmers.”

PB: “Yes, looking back now, I likely should have said, ‘Oh well, we can’t do this.’ But I didn’t like that answer, so I started exploring how to design and build machines. I tried to get the companies who manufacture flax processing machines to work with us to find a solution—I thought maybe they could look up older designs for smaller machines and we could build them again—but the response was no.

“I had a friend from university who went on to become an engineer, so I called him and asked if he would be interested in working together to build machines, and he agreed. We had to do a lot of research and development and prototyping.

“Once I realized that we would need to build machines I thought, ‘I cannot be the only one who wants a small-scale solution to processing bast fibre.’ I started to think that we could share these with others, and suddenly, we were a machine company!”

“Today, I am 100% focused on getting our fibre vision fully off the ground, including promoting and selling our machines, made by a small firm here in Nova Scotia.”

Small Actions, Big Impact

MW: “What is the market like for flax fibres and fabrics?”

PB: “There’s a demand for flax fibres for use in manufacturing but not at our scale of production. Increasing the demand for local fibres is something we need to work at. Local fibre, wool or linen, costs more to produce, but when people choose local fibre products, they are supporting meaningful employment opportunities for a variety of skilled people. Without the support, we don’t have opportunities for local shepherds, flax growers, spinners, dyers, weavers, etc.”

MW: “How do small, local, flax-growing farms benefit a sustainable garment industry in Canada?”

PB: “In order to have a sustainable garment industry, we need fibres to create fabric. We need those fibres to be grown and processed in a way that is in harmony with, not destructive to the earth. If we had many small flax-growing farms across Canada, with processing capacity to provide communities with fabric, then we could celebrate regional fabrics and local designs. We work with the local art university (Nova Scotia College of Art and Design) to provide students with a place to test ideas and to learn. Imagine, graduating from fashion design and having opportunities for internships and a career in more than fifty communities across Canada.”

Supporting the Future

MW: “What can we do, as consumers of fibre, fabric, and fashion, to make responsible choices for planet and people?”

PB: “Learning how to undo the pervasive mantra of ‘more, more, more’ is extremely difficult. First, we must be informed. Then, we must change our behaviour. We must actively support the work that in turn supports the reality and future we want to see.

“Once I started to learn more about textiles—how they are grown, how they are made, what they are treated with, how the people who make our clothes are treated—it changed everything for me. Never again will I purchase a washcloth or tea towel from anywhere that isn’t a local weaver and hopefully, they have access to some local fibres.

“Read the labels on your clothes. Learn about the finishing process for fabrics and yarns. I came to the realization that I don’t want petroleum-based fibre against my skin all day long. I want natural fibres against my skin all day long. And once you make that decision you are there.”

To learn more, visit TapRoot Fibre at taprootfibre.ca. They offer 1- and 2-ply yarn, clean tow, hackled long-line linen, flax seeds to plant or eat, and shive for animal bedding. The spinning mill offers processing for both plant and animal fibres.

All images by Patricia Bishop, TapRoot Fibre, unless otherwise noted.

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Copyright © Michelle Woodvine except as indicated.
Head shot of Michelle Woodvine

About Michelle Woodvine

Michelle Woodvine is a Toronto-based freelance writer and editor on a quest to never stop learning and making. When not wordsmithing for others, Michelle can usually be found working on her trilogy of speculative fiction novels, learning a new skill, or goofing around with her family (including her very own rocket scientist, two teenage boys, and one feisty ginger cat). Follow the weird, wonderful, and wordy adventures @woodvinewrites or visit www.woodvinewrites.com

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